Speed Work for Marathoners

Posted: August 22, 2012 in Training
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Last week represented my highest volume training week across all three triathlon disciplines to date. 161.10 total miles which were broken down by 96.62 on the bike, 59.90 running and another 4.58 in the pool. We will have a few weeks where our volume is a bit higher before the Kerrville Half-Ironman, but most of those increases will be accounted for by stretching out our bike rides each week to 35 miles on our “short rides” and taking our long ride up to 56 miles.

The key number above to me is my run volume sitting at just a hair under 60 miles for the week. A level that I surpassed just once training for the 2010 Austin Marathon (62.45) and only three times preparing for the New York City marathon in 2011 (65.80, 62.50, 65.00). Both times I set PR’s in the marathon. Volume is important as an endurance athlete, but there are of course a lot of different ways to run 60 miles in a given week. Some are much more helpful to a marathoner than others, just as if I was prepping for a 10K “A” race, I would alter my approach focusing on more speed work and less long, grind-it-out type of runs.

Those of you who have been following along for a while probably realize that while I am very focused and training hard for our debut in the Half-Ironman, we are really just a Marathoner disguised as a Triathlete.

I’m not saying that I am a “fraud” or anything, but the fact remains that if you asked me which of my next two races are more “important” in my eyes, the Kerrville 70.3 or the Houston Marathon in January, I’m sure you all know that my sights are truly set on Houston. It is perhaps our last, best chance at breaking through the only self-imposed running goal we have never achieved – A sub 3 hour marathon.

As the calendar ticks ever-closer to Kerrville, now just 40 days away, I am also very cognizant of the fact that Houston is just around the corner as well – only 144 days off on the horizon. I am being very careful to include some “marathon training” workouts and philosophies to my preparation for Kerrville so that after our recovery week post-race we will be able to literally hit the ground running for Houston. We will be firmly where we would normally be 6-8 weeks or so prior to Marathon Sunday, with actually 13 weeks left of training.  An enviable position to be in for sure.  I want to leave nothing to chance when it comes to Houston.

I remember how it felt to come through the half-way point in New York City in 1:29:45 knowing that we held our marathon hopes right in the palm of our hand on one of the largest stages in the marathon world. The course was going to make running another sub 1:30 half-marathon more or less an impossibility for us, but we had put ourself in position for success. That is all one can ask for on race day and I hope that given the same set of circumstances in Houston this January, the flat course, a more fit and better trained athlete with more race experience is able to run that second sub 1:30 half and reach our pie in the sky goal of 2:59:XX.

To do so, it is not going to be enough to just go through the motions and log slow mile after slow mile and continue to work on our endurance for Kerrville. We need to be diligent in our training to include speed work and hill repeats to make sure our legs are still firing and handling the “speedy stuff” as my friend Steve likes to say despite all the high mileage we have been covering.

Which begs the fundamental question – why does a marathoner need to run speed work? A question that I get asked quite frequently here on the blog and on the Daily Mile site where I log my runs.

There are three reasons why a long-distance runner should incorporate speed work in their training:

1. Shorter, faster repeats improve your running form and economy. Over a long-distance event like the marathon or even a half-marathon, being “efficient” in your stride and form is a key, key weapon. Akin to a car who gets better gas mileage, you are simply able to run farther before you are out of fuel. Improvements in this area take place by running “faster” at a higher cadence and leg turnover.

2. Shorter, faster repeats give me confidence. They help me “remember” that I am able to run much faster than my marathon race goal pace. Running at :30 or :40 seconds faster than those 6:52’s I need to tick off down in Houston on my speed work days during training makes my marathon goal pace miles feel “easy”. If all I have done to that point is run a bunch of miles at 7:30 pace leading up to race day, my body is not going to be able to handle those 6:52’s after the initial endorphin rush wears off. During those long, lonely, late race miles, I want to be able to draw on the fact that I’ve run many, many miles sub 6:15. 6:52’s are well within my capabilities.

3. Break up the monotony of training. If I ran the same workout every single day for the last 6 years I would have given up marathoning a long time ago. Instead I am able to mix up my workouts from day-to-day and week to week which keeps me striving to improve, add new workouts to my training and allow me to continue to ascend as a runner even after my 45th birthday. Varying your pace and effort levels each week allow your body to be taxed, recover, adapt and grow stronger/faster. Speed work plays a key role in this training process.

Of course getting injured can put a damper on any runner’s marathon training. Just ask Desiree Davilla and Ryan Hall about that.

Speed work can be a bit “dangerous” in this regard as it is far more taxing on the systems than just “running easy”. For me I make sure that the day before and the day after my speed work or hill repeat sessions are very, very easy days or rest days. It allows me to push hard on my hard days, recover, reload and then get ready to push again. I frankly do not know any other way for me to avoid the injury bug.

One of my favorite speed workouts is the “One Off, One On Workout” – where you alternate an Off Mile or Recovery Mile with an On Mile or Speed Mile.

I started out with an 8-mile Off and On workout initially, 4 miles easy, 4 miles hard which I have now stretched out to 10.6 miles with 5 off miles, 5 on miles followed by a 6/10 of a mile cool down back to the house.

Your cool down can be any distance that you prefer, I have found that my route lends itself to a little over a half-mile to let my body recover fully from my final “On” mile before I wrap the workout up. I will be stretching this workout out to 12.6 miles total at the height of Houston training, going no farther than that as I want to be able to run that last “On” mile as hard and fast as the first.

For an example of how this workout would look my splits on Tuesday this week were:

Out the door at 4:45 a.m.

Mile 1: Off Mile – 9:14 (warm-up)

Mile 2: On Mile – 6:10

Mile 3: Off Mile – 8:37

Mile 4: On Mile – 5:51

Mile 5: Off Mile – 8:39

Mile 6: On Mile 5:54

Mile 7: Off Mile – 8:35

Mile 8: On Mile – 6:01

Mile 9: Off Mile – 8:46

Mile 10: On Mile – 6:07

Cool Down – 6/10 Mile 8:38 pace

When you are starting out these intervals could be 1/2 mile or even just 400 meters as mile repeats can be a bit long if you are not used to a long, sustained run at/near 5K pace.

Gradually building up the number of repeats is also great strategy, where starting out with just 2 “On” miles and 2 “Off” miles could make this a great 4.5-5 mile workout including your cool down. Much more beneficial than just going out and grinding out a steady paced 5 mile run.

In fact my overall “pace” for this 10.6 mile run was just 7:35 min./mile. If I had just ticked over 10 consecutive 7:30’s after a 6/10 of a mile warm up at 8:00 minute pace I would have essentially just logged an “easy” day of training. Instead I taxed my sytems, ran 5 miles at 6:10 pace or better and took a big step toward being able to feel comfortable racing at 6:52 pace in January.

Sometimes it is tough getting out of your comfort zone and trying something different, but if you want results and you want things to “change” with respect to the goals you are chasing, it is just part of the deal. There are no magic potions that I know of that will get you there. If I want to take 8 minutes off of my marathon time from New York City down in Houston, I am going to have to continue to run some uncomfortable miles each and every week.

One of my favorite quotes from Austin’s own Lance Armstrong is from his book – It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (2000) on page 113 he says:

“Anything is possible. You can be told you have a 90-percent chance or a 50-percent chance or a 1-percent chance, but you have to believe, and you have to fight.”

Damn skippy.

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Comments
  1. Robin says:

    Another great blog post with great info! Thanks!

  2. short-time reader, first time caller. We ran the texas half together. Just wanted to say it’s great how you are able to make training posts interesting for other people to read !I am also hoping for a sub 3 hour marathon this winter though I chose dallas over houston after lots of debating. Just got in from doing some yassoo 800s this morning coincidentally. You’re logging some awesome milage. Good luck in kerrville !

    • joerunfordom says:

      Hi Spence! Man, so great to hear from you! Best of luck with your Dallas training. Would have been great to have you with me in Houston for sure – misery loves company those last 10 kilometers! Thanks for the well wishes and I hope to get up your way for some racing after Houston. I’ll be sure to keep in touch when I’m putting together my spring race plans … right now I’ve got the big two on the horizon. Take care and keep it vertical!

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